The 10 best Michael Caine movies, ranked
Michael Caine ranks among the top British actors of all time. Bursting onto the screen at the beginning of the change-heavy 1960s, he was a perfect fit for those rebellious times. Handsome, stylish, and with presence enough to tackle any role, his portrayals of tough but ultimately human characters have left their mark on classic cinema. Here are the ten best films which encapsulate Caine’s talent for gritty realism.
10. Play Dirty (1969)
Play Dirty is a remarkably violent and depressing World War 2 flick that is not just anti-establishment, but anti-everything. The film is like a British Dirty Dozen in the North African desert. Caine is conscripted to help lead a band of ruthless killers on a mission to blow up a German oil depot. But betrayal lurks everywhere, and the group soon discovers that the Germans may not be their most dangerous enemy.
9. Too Late The Hero (1970)
Too Late the Hero is a surprisingly pacy little war film set on a remote Pacific Island where the Japanese and British both have bases. Conflict is inevitable and, when it comes, Tosh (Michael Caine) is on the frontline. Led by an incompetent officer, a small patrol must go behind enemy lines in an attempt to destroy a Japanese radio transmitter.
Things go from bad to worse and Tosh is left as one of the few survivors. While not the best film Caine was ever in, Too Late The Hero is entertaining and shows his talent for portraying soldiers. Before acting in movies, Caine served with the British Army during the Korean War and his real-life experience with the weapons used in this film is evident.
8. Educating Rita (1983)
Caine plays against type as Frank Bryant, a literature professor employed by working-class girl Rita to prepare her for exams. Bryant begins as a depressed alcoholic, tormented by the failure of his past relationships. Rita’s enthusiasm for education proves infectious, and the pair quickly begin falling in love.
Interestingly, Caine named this as his favorite film and believed it was his best performance.
7. Alfie (1966)
Caine was born to play the title role in this 1966 classic. Alfie is a lovable cockney rogue who ultimately has a tragic coming of age when his freewheeling lifestyle catches up with him. Caine takes the viewer into his confidence right from the start when he cooly explains directly to the camera that there will be no opening credits. The audience is left with a fast-paced film that feels more like the stage play on which it was based. And even though the film is over fifty years old, Caine’s performance still feels fresh.
6. The Italian Job (1969)
“You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!”
The Italian Job is the best British crime caper ever made. Caine plays Charlie Croker, another loveable rogue type with a brilliant plan – to steal a gold shipment by creating the worst traffic jam the city of Turin has ever seen. What follows is one of the best chases ever filmed, with the Mini Coopers of the Self Preservation Society driving up steps, through buildings, and across ramps in an effort to get away from the law.
The cliffhanger ending is a true classic of British cinema, even if we never get to find out what Charlie’s “great idea” was.
5. The Eagle Has Landed (1976)
Caine made a lot of World War 2 films. The Eagle Has Landed is probably his best. He plays Kurt Steiner, a German soldier who leads a small team of elite parachutists on a top-secret mission to capture or assassinate Winston Churchill.
Based on the best-selling war novel by Jack Higgins, the German commandos are dressed as Allied Polish soldiers inserted into a rural English village that Churchill is set to visit. Things do not go to plan, and the team is discovered. Fortunately for Churchill, an American unit is stationed close by and, in the subsequent assault, the sleepy village becomes a killing ground.
Caine gave Steiner a touching humanity behind his tough facade, playing a troubled soldier who was fundamentally at odds with his Nazi bosses. The great Donald Sutherland provides excellent support as the charming but deadly IRA operative helping the Germans complete their mission.
4. The Ipcress File (1965)
Based on the best-selling novel by Len Deighton, The Ipcress File sees Caine take on the role of Harry Palmer – a working-class version of James Bond. Palmer is put on the trail of a group of top British scientists who have recently gone missing. The Soviets are the chief suspects. Palmer is quickly caught up in a web of intrigue and undergoes brutal torture after being captured.
The film is notable for its realistic treatment of the British spy world. Harry is seen as totally expendable by his superiors. He is hamstrung by bureaucracy at every turn and even has to sign for everything, including a gun. There are no sun-kissed, exotic locations – only the dirty streets and drab flats of a cold and depressing London. While a far cry from 007, Palmer is a more realistic spy perfectly suited to Caine’s style of acting.
3. Get Carter (1971)
The film that signaled the end of the swinging sixties in Britain, Get Carter is a tough and uncompromising crime masterpiece. Caine plays Jack Carter, a professional killer for the London mafia. Carter travels back to his hometown of Newcastle to attend his brother’s funeral. Soon he begins to suspect foul play and finds his vulnerable teenage niece has become mixed up in the town’s seedy underworld. Needless to say, Carter embarks on a revenge spree.
Caine played Carter with a good deal of truth. Coming from a working-class background, Caine saw and interacted with criminals in his youth. He later said that he was desperate to star in the film because “Carter is the dead-end product of my own environment, my childhood. I know him well. He is the ghost of Michael Caine.” A great crime film, Caine relishes the role, and his measured outbursts of sudden, business-like violence are terrifying and realistic.
The film was remade in 2000 and starred Sylvester Stallone as Carter. However, the 1971 version is the only one worth watching.
2. Zulu (1964)
Zulu propelled Caine to stardom way back in 1964. The working-class cockney played against type in the role of Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead, an aristocratic English officer whose father was a general. Amazingly, the young Caine had originally auditioned for the role of a common soldier but gave such a powerful and charismatic line reading that he walked away with a leading role.
Based on the 1879 Battle of Rorke’s Drift, a force of badly outnumbered British soldiers must survive against waves of suicidally brave Zulu assailants. Despite a severe lack of historical accuracy, Zulu has become a British film institution, shown regularly on TV in the years since its release. It still features beautiful cinematography and some brilliant supporting performances by veteran British actors. When Zulu premiered, Britain still had a colonial empire, and the film’s final anti-imperial message was ground-breaking.
1. The Man Who Would Be King (1975)
This superb adventure story takes the number one spot for many reasons, not the least of which is that Caine is teamed up with the great Sean Connery.
The place is India and the year is 1885. Peachy (Caine) and Danny (Connery) are two ex-British Army drill sergeants who have been thrown on the scrap heap after leaving the Army. Their plan is simple, travel into remote Afghanistan, past the Hindu Kush, find a petty ruler who is in need of good soldiers, and get employed. Then, when the time is right, they plan to loot the royal treasury “four ways from Sunday” and escape back to British India with their ill-gotten gains.
So begins an epic journey that results in an inevitable comeuppance for the two mercenaries out to make their fortune, but not before we have seen the pair bluff their way to royal power. Caine brought a level of humanity to this tough character rarely equaled in his long career. It is for this reason that The Man Who Would Be King takes number one on the list of the greatest Michael Caine films.